The silver bells of the sleds are merry and keep time in the winter nights while the sky twinkles happily. The golden bells of weddings are delightful in their peaceful happiness, foretelling a rapturous future. Meanwhile, the brazen alarm bells scream frightfully in the night, with a discordant and desperate sound. In their clamor, these bells convey terror, horror, and anger. Finally, the iron bells are solemn and melancholy, while those in the church steeple are like ghouls who feel happiness. The king of the ghouls, who rings the bells, cheerfully keeps time with the moaning and groaning bells.
In the simplest analysis, each stanza of "The Bells" deals with a particular type of bell and seeks to establish a specific mood. Poe associates the silver sledge bells with merriment and excitement, while the golden wedding bells are a celebration and a promise of joy. Then, with the next two sections come some far more ominous emotions, as the "brazen" alarm bells create an atmosphere of horror, and the iron bells toll to announce the coming of death. Silver and gold are the more valuable metals, and consequently Poe associates them with the happier stanzas. The presence of these four distinct scenarios make "The Bells" somewhat different from Poe's typical writing, which often seeks to establish a single mood in accordance with his aesthetic theories of unity, which he developed in a number of his essays on art and writing.
The seemingly disparate elements of "The Bells" may come together as a simple succession of emotional states that descend into darkness, but we can also usefully view it as an allegory for the progression of human existence, particularly in the areas of love and death. Much of Poe's oeuvre deals with these two subjects, and beauty and love often become complete in death, as in his short story "Ligeia" or in his poem "Annabel Lee." In "The Bells," the first stanza suggests courtship, while the second speaks explicitly of marriage. The third section then darkens the mood, suggesting an inevitable descent into terror and despair, and finally, the poem and the human lifetime end in the iron bells of death.
Poe's suggestions about humanity are not sanguine, and the stanzas emphasize the dark nature of the message by lengthening as they approach death. Even the courtship and marriage seem to take place at night, and the "world of merriment" and "world of happiness" foretold by the first two sets of bells prove to be ironic. While these bells speak of a bright future, the next two speak only of the terrible present, and in the end, the only happy person is the king of the ghouls, who dances while he delights in death and in the sorrow projected by the bells. The repetition of the "Runic" and hence mysterious rhyme that maintains the poem's beat suggests that the bells also symbolize the unavoidable progression of time that leads to the end of human life.
The repetition throughout "The Bells" and the association of rhythm with time creates a distinct musicality to the poem's sound. Most lines in the poem consist of a variable number of trochees, where each trochee is a stressed-unstressed two-syllable pattern, although in many cases the last foot is truncated to end on a stressed syllable. The semi-regular rhythm created by the poem's meter gives the poem a song-like quality, as does the frequent repetition of words such as "bells" and "time," which often imitate the regular chiming of a bell. The repetition of the general structure at the beginning and end of each section also add to the unity of the poem. To add to the musical imagery, Poe also uses end rhyme such as "Keeping time, time, time,/ In a sort of Runic rhyme" and internal rhyme such as "the moaning and the groaning of the bells," as well as frequent alliteration such as "melancholy menace" and "What a tale of terror now their turbulence tells!"
A key element of Poe's emulation of music comes from his frequent use of onomatopoeia, or words that imitate their meaning. For example, the tinkling of the silver bells suggests a lighthearted, carefree tone, but later bells "clang, and clash, and roar" or "throb" and "groan," thus indicating an entirely different atmosphere. Poe may have intended for this poem to be read aloud, so that the vivid sounds of his words become integral to the overall effect. Because of the clear aural emphasis of "The Bells," some literary critics have considered it to focus too much on style and not enough on meaning, but Poe's work certainly succeeds in projecting a sense of verbal power in its words.